Yesterday, we ran a discussion between Moroccan novelist Mohsine Loukili, shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his The Prisoner of the Portuguese, and ArabLit’s Leonie Rau. Today, an excerpt from the novel:
Extract from The Prisoner of the Portuguese
By Mohsine Loukili
Translated by Leonie Rau
From the seven children my father slaughtered in the cellar of our house, I was the sole survivor. Our mother, who could have stood between us and death, died of hunger and sorrow a day before the tragedy. My father buried her in the courtyard, wept over her for a whole night, and then left at dawn, aimlessly wandering Fez’s empty alleys and quarters.
With my mother’s death, the world changed forever.
My brother Abdelsamad went mad. He couldn’t bear the hunger and Mother’s death. Adnan remained bedridden. He was supposed to die before my father’s return, but fate chose differently, and he died slaughtered and terrified instead. The others held on like lame, sick chickens—standing on one side and falling on the other.
It was the third year of famine, drought, and plague. Our hardships were unceasing. The Portuguese and Spanish were ambushing our land from the direction of the sea, while the Turks were counting their numbers on the Algerian side, with the aim of using our land as a base for fighting the Christians and crossing into al-Andalus. We suffered one epidemic after another. Communities were ravaged, and famine and plague took root until we believed that God was carving our generation from the surface of the earth.
Creation died in droves, and the trials became too much to bear. People buried people in mass graves, and those carried off by illness were simply left as decaying cadavers, to rot without rites or burials. Devastation saturated the cities and the terror spread through the countryside. It reached even the mountain dwellers, and the lands were emptied both of people walking and of roaming animals.
The elite were too busy with loathing, malice, and the hatching of plots to care for the commoners. The rulers ended one war only to light the fuse of the next in their feverish struggle over power and kingship. The common people, meanwhile, were too occupied with killing one another and with rape and petty theft to remember the elite.
My father left and wandered about. We needed him. Mother’s death had left an enormous void. We also needed protection from hunger, from infection, and from fear of the unknown.
There are no dreams, Master, in nights of drought and famine.
In times of plague, the moon waters the houses’ roofs with nothing but more sorrow. Emptiness crowds into the spaces between houses and the darkness sharpens. The moon carouses high above our pains. It appears full and round, like the eye of God. A large eye: only watching, not interfering; observing, not caring. The wretched continue drowning in darkness, in fear, in themselves. They are surrounded by demons, on their unalterable path, until death.
The plague moon does not offer comfort, it incites anguish.
I crouched in the courtyard all day, waiting for my father to return. My mother had been worried that my father would die outside the house.
“Death on the road is a disgrace,” she often repeated. I was frightened for him, for my siblings, and for myself. He was our last remaining hope.
I waited for a long time. The mountains breathed wind into the alleys of Fez. There were no leaves left on the trees to be blown away. The last leaf had fallen more than two years ago. Only dust was now carried along, in whirlwinds or below them, and it filled the sky with a dreadful dark color.
Wind and dust were all this winter season had to offer us.
My father appeared on the doorstep at sunset. The wind died down, and the sun sheltered behind the mountains. Abdelsamad jumped up like a monkey, barefoot and naked, a child without a shadow. My father grabbed him by the hand, yanked him to the ground, then dragged him down the cellar steps. He slaughtered him there and returned.
Abdelsamad was the first groom in this bloody wedding procession.
Between my father’s descent down to the cellar and his return to the courtyard, he had aged many years. His beard had been conquered by white that crept its way into the hair on his head.
Sunset progressed forcefully; the sun had already surrendered. A harsh cold descended, and the few remaining clouds followed the rays of light that hung suspended in the winding alleys, fleeing Fez’s pallid night.
Everything flees our land, Master. The rains stopped, the orchards vanished, the birds departed, and the seasons came to a standstill. The last flowers bloomed years ago. Ayoub, my youngest brother and also the least fortunate, never even knew them. He died without ever picking a rose.
Even God is no longer here. God is in any other place on earth, but he is definitely not here.
When Ayoub reached his third year, he opened his eyes to the drought. He was filled with the wish to know the earth’s fertile side. My mother’s chest had already become narrow, and she now thought only of securing the next bite of food. He approached her, only for her to shoo him off until he left her alone. He walked around the rooms of the house, the walls turning him away and the faces rebuffing him, so that he ended up by my side in the courtyard. He smiled and did not speak unless he sensed it would be welcome.
He smiled to himself and asked: “What are orchards like?”
He was asking me this for the hundredth time in the past few weeks. He had dreamt of a different land, but he isn’t here anymore to live in it. He died and took his dreams with him, buried alive.
I strove to satisfy him and not crush his dreams. I shook my head, to his delight, and replied:
“Orchards are open land: flat on the plains, but arranged one above the other on the hills and mountains. Farmers cultivate them, and they overflow with bounty and blessings. They contain many ears of grains and corn, fig trees, vines, and olive trees. In spring, when the weather is clear, neither hot nor cold, the gardens are filled with flowers of all colors, and countless butterflies fluttering above them. They are watered by spring water in canals that open at specific times so that each orchard receives a sufficient share of water. In summer, when they turn yellow and harden, the farmers harvest and pick the crops. They store a third, sell a third, and give a third to the poor and to travelers.”
My father lit a lantern. He rounded us up in the courtyard as he used to do with the sheep he would bring from the farm before Eid. Ayoub cried, so he struck him with the handle of a knife. He broke his jaw, and Ayoub fell silent. We stood frozen like statues, but our shadows were kicking with the fear of death. Adnan tilted backwards and fell onto his back. Illness had been ravaging him for months, and he could not get back up. My father threw him over his shoulder like a sack and drove us down to the cellar. We saw, in the failing light of the lantern, Abdelsamad’s neck cut from ear to ear.
“Shh”, said my father, anticipating our screams. He spoke in a calm, confident voice, as a man on a sacred mission might do:
“Only women weep for fear of death.”
The cellar’s darkness still haunts my heart to this day, Master, and my siblings’ faces hover around me every time I lay my head on a pillow. The very smell—the smell of dampness, excrement, and blood.
But Ayoub sobbed. I stretched out my hand to him, and he clung to it. That’s when Father pulled Isa by the hair, and I whispered into Ayoub’s ear: “Close your eyes, I’ll tell you about the orchards.”
He nodded, wiped away his tears, and closed his eyes.
“Orchards are open land: flat on the plains, but arranged one above the other on the hills and mountains. Farmers cultivate them, and they overflow with bounty and blessings. They contain many ears of grains and corn, fig trees, vines, and olive trees. In spring…”
My father tore him from my side. He still kept his eyes closed, and I raised my voice:
“…when the weather is clear, neither hot nor cold, the gardens are filled with flowers of all colors, and countless butterflies fluttering above them. They are watered by spring water in canals that open at specific times so that each orchard receives a sufficient share of water…”
Then he slaughtered him. He did not struggle. He died with his eyes closed, dreaming of orchards and springtime and butterflies. The wind must have carried his soul far away, for angels are not made for Hell.
My father killed all my siblings, one after the other. They were submissive, maybe even wishing for death. When my father looked to me, the lantern went out. Hafiz’s bellowing ended, trailing off like a shadow at the end of evening. In the weak light of the sky, I saw my father walk up the stairs leading from the cellar to the courtyard. To this day, I don’t know why he spared me. Maybe it was the light of the lantern, dying down, driving death away from me.
Ibrahim came out, and I climbed the stairs. I fled through the front door, which had been left ajar. There was no one in the streets of Fez. No angels and no devils. I passed through Bab Boujloud, and the wind exhaled the smell of drought coming in from the mountains. Night had fallen and the moon had risen, casting its crippled light, making many corpses visible on either side of the road. I began to run, afraid that my father’s hand would snatch me and drag me back to the cellar.
I ran for a long time.
“Run, boy! Your mother is dead, your father’s gone mad, and you have no one left. Keep going, and don’t turn back. Behind you is only death.”
My limbs went stiff and grew heavy. The ground swayed beneath me, the dry trees around me collapsed, and my heart was close to splitting.
“You will not die, my son, calm down. You will remain after I’m gone, and you’ll father boys who will fill the quarters of Fez with their clamor,” I heard my mother say.
I stopped. I turned, but couldn’t find anyone. The ground rose to meet me, and I fell onto my back. I saw the bright moon sailing in the sky, soft clouds rushing by, and stars shining amidst the darkness.
It was a sky both charming and hateful.
Mohsine Loukili is a Moroccan writer, born in Taza, Morocco, 1978. He has won numerous prizes for plays, short stories and novels. He published his first short story collection Dawn of Rage in 2009, then his debut novel Winds of August (2013), which was awarded the 2013 Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity. His novel Rih al-Shirki (2016) was shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayyed Award, in the Young Author category, and his short story collection Lostness (2016) won the Ghassan Kanafani Prize for Narrative.
Leonie Rau is ArabLit’s editorial assistant. She is about to graduate from her MA degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is also an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. Her translations have appeared on ArabLit and in ArabLit Quarterly and Guernica. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.